Discussing "De-Extinction"

Posted by Pete Shanks June 5, 2013
Biopolitical Times

Stanford University hosted a one-day conference on May 31 titled "De-extinction: Ethics, Law & Politics" that featured scientists, lawyers, civil servants and the most prominent advocate of the concept, Stewart Brand. Including Hank Greely, the master of ceremonies, there were fifteen speakers and perhaps 35 others in the audience. The event was cosponsored by the Center for Law and the Biosciences and the U.C. Irvine Center for Land, Environment, and Natural Resources. Video should be available later.*

The meeting was largely dominated by a sense of inevitability, though there was more cautionary talk than at similar meetings in Cambridge, UK in April or in Washington, DC in March. The USA Today report rightly highlights the murky legal status of the enterprise. Chuck Bonham, of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (but speaking as an individual), in particular emphasized the need to "to start figuring out how to regulate it now."

The most widespread concern, stressed by Jamie Rappaport Clark, now with Defenders of Wildlife and previously with the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service, was that extremists who want to destroy the Endangered Species Act (ESA) will use vague promises of revival to do so. Why bother saving any particular species, they will likely ask, if we can always bring it back later? This prospect clearly horrifies conservation biologists.

Matthew Liebman of the Animal Legal Defense Fund expressed outright opposition to the de-extinction project on grounds of cruelty. But the tone stayed mostly within the promotion-to-resignation range until three philosophers showed up to discuss "Justice, Hubris, and Moral Issues." Hilary Bok took a pragmatic approach, involving benefit analysis as well as cost analysis. She identified animal welfare risks, and said that damage to the ESA would be a game-ender, if true. She concluded [from my notes]:

We could be repeating the sin that led us to drive them to extinction in the first place: We don't undo the sin of hubris that led to killing the passenger pigeons by recreating them without at the least working out in great detail how to do it right. If we do it the "how cool would it be to bring back the Neanderthal" way, then we are simply repeating the sins of the past.

Jay Odenbaugh, who tended to raise rather than definitively answer questions, noted the almost-instant deaths of two cloned individuals, an extinct bucardo (tissue samples had been preserved) and a gaur (technically, vulnerable but sometimes described as endangered), and wondered:

How many painful, two-minute lives are worth it?

Ronald Sander found the rationales presented to be "less convincing than they may first seem" and the concept to be "rather peripheral to conservation." He said he had not argued against de-extinction, but concluded, rather like Bok, that

the justification for de-extinction is human-oriented. It's really about the amazing thing we want to do and the cool species we want to see back.

That is a devastating rebuttal to the arguments put forward for doing it. If "de-extinction" is not about species conservation but simply about helping people feel less bad about destroying the environment, then surely we should instead be putting our time, effort and human resources into developing a more sustainable way of living on the planet.

*Update 6/22: Video of the event is now available.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: